Long Before Colorado Legalized Pot, It Was the Country's Glue-Sniffing Capital
Paul Thompson had a forged note from his mother in hand, authorizing him to purchase model-airplane glue. The preteen presented the phony document to the man behind the counter of the drugstore at West Alameda Avenue and South Federal Boulevard, who then sold Thompson his ration of two tubes.
Once, a manufacturer’s cardboard display holding 48 tubes of Testors glue propped upright had sat right there on the counter. The glue was easy to steal back then: Just get someone to distract the pharmacist, grab a few tubes and flee. But now the glue was kept behind the counter, off limits for kids unless they were purchasing it with parental approval and for legitimate use.
Sometimes Thompson would recruit other kids to buy the glue for him with their own phony notes, and then he’d turn them on to what Time magazine had labeled in 1962 “The New Kick.”
No, Thompson wasn’t building model airplanes with the glue. Oh, he’d once tried to assemble a Duesenberg automobile kit that had been given to him as a Christmas present, but there were too many pieces, and the project quickly grew taxing.
He was using the cheap plastic cement to get high. He’d started sniffing glue in 1963, at the age of nine, and continued using it over the next several years, even as he began trying other drugs like marijuana, LSD and heroin.
Thompson would sometimes “whiff glue” with friends in the fort he built from boxes just outside the rental house he lived in on West Byers Place with his sister and beleaguered Pentecostal mother, a house that sat about a block away from Columbine Homes, a complex of small, single-story, brick dwellings packed together: the projects.
Thompson would take a tube of glue and squeeze a little bit into a plastic sandwich or produce bag. He’d inhale the sweet-tasting toluene fumes again and again, for as long as the glue gave off its solvent before drying out. Then he’d add more glue to the bag and repeat the process. Other kids would breathe in the fumes from paper bags. Or squeeze the glue onto rags or handkerchiefs, and then suck the toluene in through the cloth like they were smoking a cigarette. Some industrious types even drizzled glue into frying pans, heated it up and then inhaled it that way. But that wasn’t something you were able to do stealthily in the boys’ room at school — if the glue sniffer was even inclined to attend school, that is.
Thompson, a frequent truant and runaway, and an older friend would whiff glue and sometimes spend the night in unlocked cars parked outside of Bill Dreiling Buick on West Alameda. In the predawn morning, a friendly girl at the Winchell’s across the street (now an Asian travel agency in Alameda Square Shopping Center) would offer them free doughnuts. Soon they would trudge uphill toward the pharmacy, which was “notorious for selling glue,” Thompson remembers. Sometimes he would go through six tubes in a day.
As he sniffed glue, Thompson would hear a loud humming in his ears that sounded something like a diving fighter plane crossed with the East Indian “om.” GRRRRRRRRROOOOOWWWWWMMM!
As the vibration increased, he entered into “another world.” He’d see colors. Listening to music while enjoying his short-lived buzz, he’d be transported to foreign interior realms. “You’d get to a point where you didn’t even know, until you came down, what you had done, where you had been,” he says. Later, he recognized that the feeling was close to an LSD-like high.
In a 1967 article titled “Plastic Cement: The Ten Cent Hallucinogen,” glue sniffers described everything from encountering Jesus to hearing voices urging them to kill, seeing spirits with ugly faces, being chased by a menacing duck, watching movies from outer space broadcast onto breathing walls, witnessing a face turn into Frankenstein’s monster, feeling hypersensitive to electrical currents and fearing electrocution, and moving objects with their minds.
But sniffing glue didn’t move everyone. One youth reported, “They told me you could see lions and tigers and the like, man. I didn’t see nothing.”
In contemporary press coverage, youth crime and glue sniffing went hand in hand.
In 1962, Denver Juvenile Court Judge Philip B. Gilliam told the Denver Post that glue sniffing was a major cause of juvenile delinquency in Denver. “Something must be done to control the problem,” said Gilliam, who was known as a hard-nosed jurist.
Father Flanagan of Boys Town might have famously said, “There are no bad boys.” But Gilliam knew that some of them were meaner than hell — even if they hadn’t been sniffing glue.
Paul Thompson, preteen glue sniffer.
Courtesy Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson, for example. He didn’t just steal glue; he stole milk and eggs, too. He pulled the fire alarm at school as a stupid prank. When Thompson was ten, Judge Gilliam sentenced him to six months in juvenile hall. Thompson had been caught joyriding with others in a stolen vehicle; the assistant principal at his school had encouraged Gilliam to punish Thompson.
Sociological accounts pegged youthful glue sniffers like Thompson as “father deprived.” They were from “economically marginal, if not actually deprived, families.” They possessed “a sense of insecurity or a feeling of not belonging.”
But Thompson was an atypical glue sniffer in one statistically significant regard: He was a “paddy,” a racial epithet for “white boy” used in Denver during that era. According to contemporary reports, most of Denver’s glue sniffers were “Spanish-American” kids, and Latinos accounted for the overwhelming majority of local arrestees.
Thompson sniffed glue with a racially diverse group of friends. Many were Latino, but a couple were African-American. There were also a few whites, as well as Duane, a mixed white and Indian kid. He doesn’t remember which older boy turned him onto glue — but he knows he didn’t read about it in a newspaper.
But did other kids? The nation’s first newspaper account of glue sniffing appeared in Empire, the Denver Post magazine, in 1959. In a book titled Licit and Illicit Drugs, which comprises a 1972 Consumers Union report of the same name, writer and “scholarly crusader” Edward M. Brecher contended that Denver newspaper reports about glue sniffing, which mixed dire warnings with how-to instructions, actually enticed youth to try it — a process that he said repeated itself in cities from New York City to Salt Lake City as local papers covered the phenomenon.
But Colorado was the reputed epicenter of glue sniffing, and this state’s researchers were among the first to report on it in medical, sociological and criminal-justice journals. In fact, Denver’s juvenile court would ultimately use groundbreaking, unorthodox ways to mitigate the problem; those methods would become guides for drug treatment and youth services in the decades ahead.
“I think Denver is the most important place in the country to the glue-sniffing epidemic,” says historian Thomas Aiello, author of the 2015 book Model Airplanes Are Decadent and Depraved: The Glue-Sniffing Epidemic of the 1960s. “Partly because it was the series of articles by the Denver Post that ends up kind of starting at least the ‘epidemic’ part of it, the ‘moral panic’ part of it. But also because Denver becomes the hub of trying to fix it.”
Dr. Oliver Massengale, director of the adolescent clinic at the University of Colorado Medical Center in the early 1960s, did some of the first scientific research on recreational glue sniffing.
Courtesy Oliver Massengale
Dr. Oliver N. Massengale looked at the map of Denver into which he’d stuck around forty colored pushpins. Each pin indicated a glue sniffer that he’d learned about through Denver juvenile-court records. The pins were clustered in groupings of two or three, five or six, in two- or three-block locales in the poorer sections of the city. His supposition: “They were obviously neighbors and learned to sniff from one another.”
A thirty-year-old physician originally from southern Indiana, Massengale hadn’t learned about glue sniffing while attending medical school at Johns Hopkins or completing his residency in Baltimore. Nor had he encountered any cases when he’d been a captain in the Army, attending to thousands of dependent Army wives and children while heading his base’s pediatric clinic in post-war Munich.
He hadn’t read the 1959 Denver Post article warning about potential brain damage from sniffing model glue and describing the trend: “Police in Pueblo, Colo., and several other cities in the West report that juveniles seeking a quick bang and a mild jag spread the liquid glue on the palms of their hands, then cup their hands over their mouth and nose and inhale deeply.”
But now, at the University of Colorado Medical Center, where Massengale directed one of the nation’s first adolescent clinics, he had encountered two cases within approximately one month in 1960. One terrified mother had brought in her son and sobbed, “He’s sniffing glue, doctor. You’ve got to stop him before he dies.”
When Massengale looked for medical literature on the dangers of glue sniffing, he couldn’t find anything authoritative, though anecdotal reports indicated that the practice had been taking place in Colorado since the mid- to late ’50s. Dr. Helen H. Glaser, an assistant professor of pediatrics who was married to the dean of the medical school, offered some helpful advice: See if there are other cases out there. Glaser later signed on to help Massengale with his project, which resulted in a published paper.
After signing a confidentiality waiver, Massengale scoured juvenile-court records. While there wasn’t a law against glue sniffing, per se, there was an ordinance in Denver against being “under the influence of any narcotic, drug, stimulant or depressant,” according to the anti-drug publication Listen, which was put out by the Adventists. Juvenile glue sniffers were also being apprehended for various crimes while under the influence: breaking and entering, shoplifting, vandalism, running away from home, auto and bike thefts and fighting. Massengale encountered one boy “who set upon three Marines in a city park and was beaten badly and was in a hospital for several days.”
The doctor visited families and persuaded a few parents to bring their children to his office for a physical examination. Many were reluctant, fearing publicity. The kids who’d been arrested were predominantly young Latinos living in impoverished conditions. Many of the families had relocated from southern Colorado to Denver for increased public assistance, Massengale remembers. Most lived in the Five Points neighborhood.
The boys (glue sniffers were overwhelmingly males) were between seven and seventeen, with thirteen the average, often living in single-parent families in an unfamiliar urban setting where they almost certainly encountered some degree of institutional racism. Massengale says that the glue sniffers he met “weren’t really well motivated to succeed or perform in school. They were kind of a sad lot of kids. I think this was a way of kind of escaping from the reality which was not very pleasant for them, since they lived in deprived homes.”
As one glue sniffer told the Denver Post, “Sure, it may not be good for you, but, boy, when you can get stoned for a dime, that’s something.”
Certainly the chemicals in glue, which varied from product to product, had the potential to be toxic. After conducting examinations of young glue sniffers, however, Glaser and Massengale concluded that “there has been thus far no documented evidence of serious physical side effects of this practice.” But that didn’t mean that glue sniffing could be considered a harmless “passing fad” like “telephone booth-stuffing,” they warned: “That it can lead the young person to more serious and lasting forms of misbehavior such as alcoholism, drug addiction, and criminal activity is implicit in the nature of the practice.”
Massengale and Glaser’s paper, “Glue-Sniffing in Children,” was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on July 28, 1962. It’s been cited by author Brecher as “the first scientific research on the recreational aspects of glue sniffing in the history of the medical sciences.” During the two-year span in which the doctors had conducted their study and readied their paper for publication, glue-sniffing arrests by Denver police had accelerated. According to one police lieutenant, 95 arrests had taken place in 1960, and 276 in 1961 — an increase of 190 percent. Similarly, Denver’s juvenile hall reported thirty glue sniffers placed there in 1960, 134 in 1961 and 200 in 1962. By 1965, a Denver Public Schools social worker wildly estimated that 5,000 kids in Denver were “addicted to glue.”
After its publication in JAMA, Massengale and Glaser’s study was covered by everything from the Associated Press to Consumer Reports, the Afrocentric Jet and the Adventists’ Listen. The British Medical Journal became one of the first peer-reviewed publications to cite the paper.
Along with additional staff members from the medical center, Massengale and Glaser undertook further research. Gas chromatography tests were conducted on commercially available glues in Denver to determine the active ingredients. One of the products made by the Testor Corporation had high levels of acetone (also used in nail polish remover). But the Testors glue that was the most popular among the kids because of its “pleasant odor and lack of disagreeable after-effects” contained toluene. “Toluene, as far as we could see, was basically harmless,” Massengale says.
CU psychologists Josiah B. Dodds and Sebastiano Santostefano compared glue-sniffing subjects to a control group in order to find out if glue sniffers were suffering cognitive damage. In April 1964, their results were published in the Journal of Pediatrics, where they revealed that they couldn’t find any major differences between the two groups.
That ran counter to the panicky statements reported in the press. After seven Denver teens were arrested for glue sniffing in 1961 near the Curtis Park Recreation Center, a police lab technician had told the Denver Post that, in addition to the “giddiness and dizziness” resulting from the “new thrill-seeking activity,” glue sniffing “also can cause severe brain damage and death.”
The researchers had considered whether the results of their study were biased. As opposed to the glue-sniffing participants, members of the control group were white, and hadn’t displayed the emotional problems in school that the glue sniffers had. The paper concluded that “the bias should have been in the direction of causing glue sniffers to perform with less efficiency because of the low academic-intellectual motivation associated with this minority group and with delinquents.”
Dodds, a preacher’s son who’d grown up in Laramie and Ithaca, New York, says today, “We were looking to find differences and did not find them.”
And it wasn’t because Dodds and Santostefano were inexperienced at administering and evaluating psychological tests. Santostefano, who would go on to teach at Harvard Medical School, had developed four of the tests used in the study. He would use the same methods throughout his career to assess children for continuous concentration, for continuous performance despite distractions, and for motor coordination. In 1967, Dodds co-created the Denver Developmental Screening Test, which has been used throughout the world to assess infants and preschool children for developmental delays.
Of the boys he encountered in the study, Santostefano says, “I guessed they were coping with trauma that they had experienced.” Perhaps it had to do with a sense of feeling “foreign” — something Santostefano could identify with, since his parents were Sicilian immigrants who had settled in Connecticut alongside hundreds of others from the same village in Italy. The Denver youths “were not bad or evil,” he adds. “They were just kids coping with anxiety and stress.”
Prior to the publication of the Dodds-Santostefano paper, Massengale, Glaser, Dodds and others had published a report on December 19, 1963, in the New England Journal of Medicine that mirrored one conclusion in the previous JAMA paper: “Although glue-sniffing appears to be physically harmless to most children, it is an increasingly prominent stimulus to delinquency.”
A collection of warnings about the dangers of glue sniffing.
The report cited a couple of cases. A fifteen-year-old boy had been sent to juvenile hall four times for glue sniffing, as well as for car theft and truancy. His angered mother and stepfather rejected him because of his delinquency; the child also displayed “feelings of inadequacy and difficulty with sexual orientation.”
Denver Outlaws / Major League Lacrosse All Star Game
TicketsSat., Dec. 29, 6:00pm
One curious item was left out of all the published reports. “There were a couple kids that used to squirt the glue into their girlfriend’s or sister’s socks or underwear and sniff it out of the...parts of clothing, which I thought was sort of bizarre,” Massengale recalls.
Local physicians and psychologists weren’t the only ones studying glue sniffers. Sociologists were, too.
W. Thomas Adams, director of the Lookout Mountain School for Boys, Colorado’s corrections program for delinquent youth, told the Denver Post in 1961 that fifty kids were being held at the Golden facility because of glue sniffing. “This is a problem throughout the state but especially in the Denver and Pueblo areas,” Adams said. “I understand that Pueblo authorities are so concerned that they are working out agreements with store owners in an effort to prevent the sale of this type of glue to juveniles.”
Adams, along with fellow sociologist Gordon H. Barker of the University of Colorado, evaluated 28 glue sniffers at the Lookout Mountain School. The Sociology and Social Research journal published their findings in April 1963. In their report, Adams and Barker described the mothers of the glue-sniffers as often being “over-worked” and “over-whelmed,” prone to “excessive drinking” and “sexual promiscuity.” The boys were being allowed to run wild and unsupervised in their communities.
Although 26 of the 28 boys in the study were “Spanish-American,” Adams and Barker concluded that “the pattern of glue-sniffing being found primarily in one ethnic minority in Colorado is due to cultural factors, and not that this behavior is inherent in one ethnic group.”
Adams and Barker held out hope that the hobby industry would eventually devise a glue that wouldn’t give kids a buzz. Or that some type of additive would make glue less desirable to huff. “But in order to be effective,” they wrote, “broad social and familial programs should be explored, and expert services to children and families afflicted with this problem should be provided.”
Although Tom Adams didn’t realize it at the time, he knew the man who would attempt to institute those kinds of changes.
Retired judge Ted Rubin at his home in Sunshine Canyon.
Prior to assuming the bench in January 1965, Denver Juvenile Court Judge H. Ted Rubin returned from a fact-finding trip to Cleveland and Washington, D.C., with more than just insights into those cities’ juvenile courts. While in Washington, Rubin had secured a grant from the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare to study glue sniffing in Denver. Before he was done, $100,000 of HEW’s money would be spent on the project.
Rubin had been elected in 1964 as a second juvenile-court judge to assist with the city’s caseload. It was a position that Rubin had helped create when he was a state legislator — and a job he knew he wanted to fill. As a representative in the Colorado House for two terms beginning in 1961, Rubin had helped establish a forestry camp for delinquent youth. He’d led the way for Fort Logan to open a children’s psychiatric hospital. And he’d championed changing the name of the State Industrial School for Boys to the Lookout Mountain School for Boys, after consulting with Adams, the school’s director.
Denver’s sole juvenile-court judge since 1940, Philip B. Gilliam, had opposed the addition of a colleague. Gilliam had been the youngest judge in Denver’s history and was an internationally renowned speaker on juvenile- and family-court issues. “He thought I was so much of a leftist,” Rubin says. “He thought I was a social worker.”
In fact, Rubin had been a social worker in Ohio prior to moving to Colorado in 1956 and beginning a domestic-relations law practice.
While Rubin was still in the state legislature, HEW had issued bulletins to poison-control centers across the country concerning glue sniffing. Rubin presented the idea of researching the trend when he met with contacts at the agency in D.C., and they funded the 21-month study.
Group talks between counselors and glue sniffers would guide the process. As Rubin explained: “The beauty of [this] method is that when the counselor gets the natural leader off of the glue, they become therapists for the others. Whereas before to be accepted into the group a boy had to sniff glue, the effect now is just the opposite.”
The program’s focus was on prevention and rehabilitation, not punishment. That approach would become a hallmark of the work done by Rubin and his staff. For example, when Denver City Council proposed an ordinance that would penalize kids for glue sniffing, Rubin testified against the measure. “They were shocked,” Rubin remembers.
And when Robert Arneson, a probation counselor with Denver Juvenile Court, encountered a man who wanted to make a citizen’s arrest of kids sniffing glue in a laundromat, “I told him if he could think of nothing better to do, why didn’t he ask them to go fishing with him?,” Arneson reported to the Denver Post.
The kids selected or recruited into the project were divided into four groups, including a control, and were evaluated for such traits as “social-presence,” “self-acceptance,” “self-control,” “flexibility” and “femininity” at the start and at the end of the study. As a result of the counseling he received, one of the glue sniffers, R.C., was eventually able to assert, “I was a coward when I sniffed glue or was high. Now I will fight if they bug me, even if I get licked.” (That no doubt affected his femininity score, a categorization used by social scientists at the time. “That’s not a big issue anymore,” Rubin says.)
The most successful group was led by counselor Arneson; his kids were taught for three hours each day in a special class at Morey Junior High School by a public-school teacher who was funded by the glue-sniffing project. The teacher also acted as a liaison between the children and their families.
The second-most-successful group was helmed by Anthony Perea, a well-liked recent graduate of the University of Denver who’d earned his master’s degree in social work. As a local “indigenous leader,” it was Perea’s job to recruit glue-sniffing kids from the Latino community rather than ones who had been placed in the program via juvenile court. But apparently the boys were initially suspicious of Perea’s court-supervised intentions. The project’s final report states: “One of the group members later confessed they had thought Mr. Perea was a ‘queer’ because he showed so much interest in young boys.”
Many kids soon realized there were definite pluses to giving up glue. Said Bobby: “Girls won’t go for you unless they sniff glue, too. You kiss a girl and she smells glue and says, ‘See you later.’ Can you imagine that?”
Some critics wondered why so much money was being spent on studying glue sniffers. Denver Juvenile Court Director of Programming Lester G. Thomas laid out the court’s reasoning in Juvenile Court Judges Journal in 1967: “By studying intensely any segment of the delinquent population we will gain valuable insights into the problems of, and treatment modalities for, many delinquents.”
In early 1968, Rubin declared the results of the project successful. In one of the most dramatic turnarounds, one youth increased his attendance at school, missing only two days when the previous year he’d skipped 103. Grade-point averages went up. Five of the participants in the school-based group quit sniffing glue entirely, while the other four reduced their usage. By contrast, none of the boys in the control group ceased the practice, and some actually increased their consumption. Psychological and sociological scores improved over the course of the project as well.
“We didn’t save everybody, but we saved a lot of the kids,” says Rubin.
Denver Juvenile Court’s approach was highlighted at a 1967 national conference on glue sniffing hosted in Denver by Rubin and funded by HEW. Governor John A. Love and Mayor Thomas G. Currigan welcomed participants from across the country.
Dr. Alan K. Done, a nationally quoted expert, discussed his medical experiences with Salt Lake City’s predominantly middle- to upper-class glue sniffers. Lieutenant Richard Davis of the New York City Police Department addressed community problems in the Big Apple — where, in three separate incidents between 1963 and 1964, glue-sniffers had fallen to their deaths from rooftops.
Thomas Aiello reviewed the conference’s papers for his book. “It was a great idea bringing together these people from all different fields and all different parts of the country,” he says. “The problem was, each different field had a very different take on what, exactly, was going on, what caused the problem, what the medical consequences were. So it ended up becoming this kind of cacophony of voices where they were really kind of talking past one another.”
There might not have been an overall consensus at the conference. But Rubin says he and his local cohorts “had the consensus on what worked for our kids.”
While Rubin had been able to convince the federal government that he was providing a valuable service by studying glue sniffers, there was a group of people he wasn’t able to sway with his approach to judicial issues: the majority of Denver voters. Rubin lost his re-election bid in 1970 and exited the bench in 1971.
His primary goal had been to reduce the flow of kids into institutions. Even so, he says, “the cops came after me, and the [Rocky Mountain News] came after me, and the teachers’ group came after me, because I was not throwing kids away.”
A campaign image from the 1960s.
Denver police captain W. M. Wiley of the Delinquency Control Division enumerated Rubin’s deficiencies in a caustic missive, noting, among other things, that police chief George Seaton had characterized Rubin as “an ultra-liberal” who was “responsible for the high rate of juvenile crime in Denver.” Juvenile Court had become a “Mickey Mouse operation,” Wiley continued, and Rubin promoted halfway houses run by “long-haired sociologists” who used government grants to increase their own income. Rubin had sentenced fewer juveniles to institutions than Judge Gilliam had, and Rubin had replaced the superintendent of juvenile hall, “a Gilliam man.”
Wiley, who founded the Denver Police Athletic League around the same time, also rebuked Rubin for opposing the anti-glue ordinance that had been introduced by Denver City Council, stating sarcastically that Rubin and “one of his liberal cohorts appeared before the Council telling them if such an ordinance were passed, many poor children would no longer have an outlet for their emotional and psychological problems.”
Rubin, now ninety, lives in Sunshine Canyon in Boulder County, having relocated in 1991 from Park Hill in Denver. After his judgeship ended, he worked for the Institute for Court Management, which later merged with the Virginia-based National Center for State Courts. Rubin has conducted workshops across the country and written numerous papers on issues related to juvenile justice; he also authored the book Behind the Black Robes.
His glue-sniffing project has been cited as an inspiration for the nonprofit Denver Area Youth Services, which offers community-based health and drug-treatment assistance to families within the metro area. Boardmember Ed Augden — a co-founder, along with the late Anthony Perea — says that DAYS provides “an alternative to incarceration for juvenile offenders.”
Rubin also introduced a Denver chemist, Lewis Trenner, to members of the Hobby Industry Association of America after Trenner pledged to help get kids off glue. After conducting his own research, Trenner suggested to the glue-makers that they add “mustard oil” to their product, making it unpleasant to sniff. Whether or not Trenner was ultimately responsible for the shift, the Testor Corporation began adding the chemical — allyl isothiocyanate — to its glues in the late ’60s, with immediate results.
Paul Thompson remembers sniffing the Testors glue doctored with allyl isothiocyanate, a chemical listed in at least one book about chemical warfare: “You would almost want to throw up. They ruined our high, they ruined our life, they ruined our world!”
In 1970, Rubin predicted the results of adding “mustard oil” to glue: “The additive will fully stop some, but will transfer others to probably more hazardous substances.”
In fact, after the addition of the chemical to glue, huffing spray paint became popular in Denver. “That’s why they started locking it up” at the hardware store, Thompson says.
Inhalant drug abuse continues across the country today, with products such as freon (a refrigerant) and canned air (made for dusting computer keyboards) leading to huffing deaths.
Denver’s juvenile hall, at 2844 Downing Street, is now branded the Phillip [sic] B. Gilliam Youth Services Center after the late juvenile-court judge. He’s remembered in other ways: In recent years, Gilliam’s “Open letter to a Teen-ager,” published in a newspaper in 1959, has gone viral: “Grow up; quit being a crybaby. Get out of your dream world and develop a backbone, not a wishbone, and start acting like a man or a lady.”
Rubin offered complimentary words about Gilliam’s achievements after the despondent, retired judge took his own life in 1975 at age 67. Of the present-day juvenile hall, though, he says, “I’m glad it’s not Rubin Center.”
Paul Thompson today, at Peer I.
The onetime CU researchers reached for this story were surprised to be asked about their work with glue sniffers in Denver over five decades ago.
“It’s ancient history,” says 86-year-old Josiah Dodds. Still living in Denver, “Joe” Dodds finished his career at DU after leaving CU in 1967.
After his work at CU, Oliver Massengale, now 86, never encountered another glue sniffer. “But the [clientele] that you usually see in private practice is usually considerably more affluent,” says the retired pediatrician, a self-described political conservative living in the liberal bastion of Portland, Oregon. Massengale opposed Oregon’s 2014 initiative to tax and regulate marijuana.
Sebastiano Santostefano, 87, departed CU in 1964 in order to pursue psychoanalytic training. He later spent twenty years as the director of the children and adolescent program at the prestigious McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. Santostefano’s book Child Therapy in the Great Outdoors documents his private practice working with children in a nature-based setting — the outdoors being a key, he believes, to unlocking and then processing suppressed traumas.
Over the years, says “Seb” Santostefano, he has seen a “good number” of drug users (though not glue sniffers), but has never observed much drug-induced brain damage — from glue or other substances. “It’s personality stuff that’s affected,” he notes.
Although Dodds, Massengale and Santostefano all departed CU back in the ’60s, one person in this saga is still there: Paul Thompson, who began working for the university in the early ’90s.
The life trajectory of the ex-glue sniffer mirrors a warning illustration distributed at one time by the Denver Police Department: a map depicting a road beginning at “Glue City” (“Many kids start sniffing glue at an early age, some as young as 9”) leading to “Marijuana City,” followed down the highway by “Needle City,” and finally ending in “Canon City.”
Thompson and his young friends sniffed glue in the early to mid-1960s, when other drugs weren’t readily available. When cannabis finally became accessible, it was low-potency, so they combined pot and the already-familiar glue. Never one for amphetamines, Thompson took to heroin at sixteen. Pretty soon, he and his friends were robbing hippies on the Hill in Boulder for LSD and cash. In 1971, at the age of seventeen, Thompson was sentenced, as an adult, to prison in the Buena Vista Correctional Facility for armed robbery. One day not long after he arrived, Thompson hurriedly hid the rag with which he’d been huffing a cleaning product. But the approaching prison guard simply wanted to tell him that his son had been born.
After his release, Thompson continued shooting heroin. (A 1977 article in The International Journal of the Addictions once categorized drug abusers like Thompson with this title: “Heroin Addicts with a History of Glue Sniffing: A Deviant Group within a Deviant Group.”) In 1989, at the age of 36, Thompson hit bottom. He was about to be imprisoned indefinitely as a habitual criminal when a fellow inmate told him about Peer I, a no-nonsense therapeutic community overseen by Addiction Research and Treatment Services (ARTS), a clinical program run by the University of Colorado.
No one had ever offered Thompson drug rehab before — and his freedom hinged on his success in the program, into which he petitioned to be accepted.
As in the glue-sniffing project run by Denver Juvenile Court, Peer I participants hold each other accountable within a group setting. They practice “tough love,” calling each other out for misdeeds or bad attitudes. They give back to the community, whether working on building projects, singing for seniors at nursing homes or delivering gifts to kids at Christmas.
For once, says the now 62-year-old Thompson, “I was able to do positive things and get acknowledged.” Instead of waking up in prison, he awoke on the grounds of Fort Logan, where Peer I is based. “It’s like serenity when it snows out here, so beautiful, peaceful,” he says.
Thompson earned his GED while at Peer I, where he’s now the assistant director as well as a licensed alcohol and drug-abuse counselor. He visits prisons, vetting convicts — who are much like his former self — for acceptance into the program. Peer I occasionally take participants into the hills. “Most people here have never been fishing and camping,” Thompson says. “They’ve been on Colfax, robbin’ and druggin’.... A guy will catch a fish two inches long and think he caught a whale.”
A colleague says that Thompson is doing “the Lord’s work.”
Duane Chapman, aka Dog the Bounty Hunter, was a childhood pal of Paul Thompson.
Thompson remains in touch with at least one of his Denver glue-sniffing buddies: Duane “Dog” Chapman, aka Dog the Bounty Hunter. As Chapman recalls their glue-sniffing days, “I was half-Native American and Paul was a white boy, so we were beat up by gangs. The only way to get over that feeling, you know, was to sniff glue and forget everything, so that’s what we did.”
Dog the Bounty Hunter talking about glue sniffing? No joke. However, practically from the beginning of the phenomenon, glue sniffing was the subject of ridicule — and people still insult others by accusing them of engaging in that bottom-of-the-barrel form of drug abuse.
Comedian Lenny Bruce once kidded, “There were kids, eight, nine years old that were sniffing airplane glue to get high on. These kids are responsible for turning musicians on to a lot of things that they never knew about, actually.”
The Ramones invented punk rock by harnessing bubblegum pop, simple power chords and twisted humor, cranking out songs like their 1976 ode to bored and depressed youth, “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.”
That eventually led to the Onion publishing the following satirical headline: “Study: Sniffing Glue Proven Effective in Treatment of Adolescent Boredom.”
In the 1980 disaster-movie parody Airplane!, Lloyd Bridges’s flight-tower controller, under extreme pressure, famously bemoans, “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue.”
Even Paul Thompson isn’t immune from joking when it comes to his onetime fondness for plastic cement.
He’s asked colleagues at the University of Colorado’s ARTS program, “You wonder why I’m so dumb?”
Then he delivers the punchline: “It’s because I used to sniff glue.”
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.